Melbourne, Australia

Not many Sunday sermons get wide coverage in the secular media. An exception was the message, or a few pertinent bits of it, on a recent Sunday at the Victory Life Centre in Perth founded by tennis champion Margaret Court. And the guest preacher was former Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

At one level his remarks were unremarkable in a church context when he said government was important "but we have a bigger hope" than politicians. The next lines particularly grabbed headlines: ”Trust in Him. We don’t trust in governments. We don’t trust in the United Nations, thank goodness. We don’t trust in all of these things, fine as they might be and as important a role as they play. Believe me, I’ve worked in it and they are important. But as someone who has been in it, if you are putting your faith in those things like I put my faith in the Lord, you are making a mistake. They’re earthly, they are fallible. I’m so glad we have a bigger hope.” 

Australia Parliament House

An Australian flag flies above Parliament House in Canberra. PICTURE: Daniel Morton/Unsplash

 

"Of course, there is a long history of Christian tradition on Scott Morrison’s side. Politics is a penultimate concern and only faith and hope in the God of Jesus is an ultimate concern worthy of our trust. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, was the essential message of the first Christians...But context is important as this was not just any old congregation on a Sunday morning. This was Margaret Court’s church, who were praying and even prophesying that Scott Morrison would win."

But, taken out of a church context into the public realm, there was widespread condemnation. Sentiments ranged from "he sure wanted us to trust him and his government until he lost power" to "he is playing to negative caricatures and even conspiracy theories about the UN. He was not condemning the UN/WHO in office when he needed their advice and support during the pandemic. Now having lost office he undermines trust in government when we are still in the midst of the pandemic". Or sentiments even stronger - that this is this just Morrison invoking God on his side again and implying God as the enemy of his political foes who are now in office.

Of course, there is a long history of Christian tradition on Scott Morrison’s side. Politics is a penultimate concern and only faith and hope in the God of Jesus is an ultimate concern worthy of our trust. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, was the essential message of the first Christians. So let secular people gnash their teeth at his sermon but Christian faith in the God of Jesus is the sole source of our hope and has stood the test of so many different forms of government throughout history and out lasted all of them, over 2000 years, by staying true to this confession.

But context is important as this was not just any old congregation on a Sunday morning. This was Margaret Court’s church, who were praying and even prophesying that Scott Morrison would win. She is married to the former conservative Premier’s brother, Richard Court, who was in church that morning.

Not too many Labor voters would feel comfortable in this congregation. And Margaret Court’s vehement opposition to gays has made her a public figure beyond her tennis stardom. Given this context secular, people might rightly be forgiven for believing that Christians do not allow their faith to influence their politics but the reverse. They might say Jesus is Lord but too often politics informs their faith and politics becomes Lord. Why does the Lord always only ever back political conservatives? Would not a reading of the prophets and their cries for social justice give pause to that wiring in Christians?



Secondly, there is a confusing transition from church language to the language of secular politics. In Scott Morrison’s maiden speech he said "Australia is not a secular country but a free country". Maybe. But a secular country is actually the best defence for all faiths to practice freely including in the public realm. Just have a look at Indian PM Modi’s BJP Government overturning its secular constitution with his idea of 'Hindutava' which insists that to be truly Indian is to be Hindu.

There, Christians and other religions are mourning the loss of protection that the notion of secular provides. A secular society is neutral about which voices to allow and insists it privileges none. So, in principle, Christians should be freer to publicly comment and preach the Gospel in a secular context. When any religion becomes a de facto state religion it cramps prophetic voice and can be reduced to a department of the state which we see under Putin where the Russian Orthodox church applauds Putin’s "military operation" in Ukraine because he privileges and rewards it.


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Scott Morrison often used church language in his Prime Ministership that was misunderstood. His 2019 election win was a ‘miracle’ as he believes in the God of miracles. His late conversion to taking seriously the alleged rape of staffer Brittany Higgins in Parliament House only came after his wife Jenny counselled him that you should think of this as if it was one of our daughters. Outrage followed that he could not see it before, but in my mind it is the type of language we use in church. We male preachers commonly invoke our wives' advice from the platform. It is a well-worn tradition that is heard by the congregation as deferential in a folksy, family way. His response to a mother of a child with a disability in an election forum was that he and his wife Jenny had been blessed not to face that with their two daughters. Cue outrage over the use of the term 'blessed'.

For me, Scott Morrison’s speech needed him to admit that he, although a Christian, could also not be trusted always in government. If his sermon frankly admitted the text he authorised on election day, 21st May, to millions of voters that another asylum boat was headed here - which not only broke caretaker conventions in an election, but was pure political self-interest - it might have tempered his sermon. Indeed, it is unwise to put our trust in governments!

tim costello2

Tim Costello is a Sight columnist and Sight Advisory Board member, executive director of Micah Australia and a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. He was formerly chief executive of World Vision Australia.